Letter from Switzerland
It's been five years since we left and three since we last visited "la Côte" ("the coast"), as it is affectionately called by the Swiss, and it is both wonderful and strange to be back.
Every time I fly into Geneva, I am always struck by the complex beauty of the region. On the French side of the Léman are the disquieting Alps, springing straight up from the lake. Wordsworth once described them as "Characters of the great Apocalypse, / The types and symbols of Eternity." They have a savage power and a sublime peacefulness that's transfixing, and I have yet to see anything that produces quite the same effect in me.
On the Swiss side are the rolling farmlands and vines of the canton of Vaud, hemmed in by the Jura. The wheat is being harvested now and the low hum of the modern combines somehow resonates against the countryside. There's the Temple d'Aubonne, where Carine and I were married, and the lakeside town of Nyon, both ancient and modern, with the straight lines of contemporary apartments slowly overtaking the 18th century farmhouses and Roman and medieval ruins. It's nature versus civilization in grand relief, and it's wonderful not to have to choose between the two.
We spent the first two weeks in a small alpine village in a rustic but comfortable chalet, visiting with family and friends, hiking, reading, and taking afternoon naps. Now we are back on our old stomping grounds in the countryside above Morges. There are a number of new apartments and villas in the area, but little else has changed since we left. Our old flat is still where it used to be, though the inside has been redone. The church bells still ring every day, and the old walking paths in the forest are still as dark and as inviting as ever. It's fun to be back with the kids and watch the not-too-distant-memories take hold of our two oldest daughters, sparked by a yogurt container here, a chair or a smell there. They were only seven and five when we left, but it is amazing how much they remember.
Oddly enough, one thing that has changed since we last visited is the behavior of Swiss dogs. Switzerland is a highly regulated society, with rules for everything from the maximum number of hours cows can remain in a barn to the exact number of nuclear bomb shelters required per town or neighborhood. In the States, we tend to think of freedom as the absence of restrictions, but such a view is not always, nor even necessarily, accurate. When I lived here, I didn't care much for the strict car-inspection rules that forced me to dispose of my old Opel because of a bit of rust, but one law I like very much is the new one regarding dog ownership. All new dog owners are now required to take courses and theoretical and practical exams in dog training and care, and I must say that jogging and walking has never been more of a pleasure. No more "harmless" dogs jumping up on the kids or chasing lustily after the edges of my running shorts. It's heavenly. The dogs seem happier, too—as, I am sure, are the dog trainers.
(A few years ago a new provision was passed on the care of plant life, but as far as I can tell, everyone seems to be ignoring this one, and rightfully so. The Swiss like rules, but they also have a stubbornly independent streak.)
About a week after we arrived, my oldest daughter asked me why we ever had wanted to leave such a beautiful place. I told her we hadn't. "So why did you?" "Circumstances," I told her. In 2005, I received a grant to do research at Yale. It was "an opportunity we couldn't refuse," to use an apt cliché. I resigned my assistantship at the University of Neuchâtel, we put our things in storage, packed up the kids and left, planning to be back at the end of the academic year. One year became two, two became three, and with no professional opportunities on the horizon in Switzerland, we ended up staying in the States. It just happened.
But, of course, it didn't just happen. As is the case, I suppose, with many young people just starting out in life, profession trumped place in terms of importance—partly out of material necessity, partly out of a sense of calling, and partly, I'm afraid, out of male ambition—and so the result is that we are now living in Houston, Texas, not Morges, Switzerland. Our kids speak English much better than they speak French and understand themselves to be American, not Swiss, even though they possess both nationalities.
It's not easy to visit a place that used to be home but is no longer—especially a place as beautiful as Switzerland. Within a day it's as if you had never left, and you feel as if you should do everything you can to return. You question the decisions that led to moving away in the first place and wonder what life would have been like if you had chosen differently.
But this way of thinking is always a dead-end. Valuing profession over place is not necessarily better or worse than valuing place over profession, and all motives can be equally polluted by self-serving desires and, therefore, open to second-guessing. More important, such a way of thinking blinds you to the blessings of other places. We moved to Houston just two weeks before we left for Switzerland and have not yet had the pleasure of discovering the particularities of our new home that will one day become the building blocks of a new sense of belonging. At least, that's my hope and my comfort as I type this, looking out at what is surely one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Micah Mattix is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University and the review editor of The City.
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